The Missa pro defunctis of the Roman rite is a particularly eloquent expression of that idea first found in the writings of Saint Prosper of Aquitaine: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. To paraphrase: the law of prayer establishes the law of belief. The proper texts and rituals of the Requiem Mass, a part of the law of prayer, point to Christian doctrine (that is, the law of belief) and in particular what the Church believes about those who have died. Each word and action this way of celebrating the Mass, offered this evening in its solemn form, beautifully demonstrates what we believe to be our role as the Church militant with respect to our deceased brethren, the Church expectant. There is no doubting that in this somewhat stark and precise liturgical rite we discover a fulsome and rich theology of the dead. By it, echoing the words of the Introit, we offer a true hymn of praise to God, and in particular do so on behalf of our beloved dead: “Thou, O God, art praised in Sion, and unto thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem: thou that hearest the prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come” (Ps. 65). In union with the supreme Eucharistic oblation, then, we here present ourselves and our prayers for those “who have gone before us sealed with the seal of faith, and who sleep the sleep of peace,” beseeching the Lord God to grant them “the abode of refreshing, of light, and of peace;” an abode that is found and offered to the faithful in Sion; the heavenly Jerusalem.
In our contemporary society there exists an unhealthy distinction between law and charity. In current political debates we see this in relation to the question of immigration. And even in the Church we have, not least in recent months, seen it in relation to the question of the reception of Holy Communion by those who have been divorced and taken up a second union. Yet at the heart of this morning’s gospel we discover anew the fundamental connection between law and charity, to the end that we can say: when a false distinction is drawn between them, each is reduced in its essential importance and particular value. Indeed, with the Psalmist we affirm: “Mercy and truth and met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85: 10).
In the traditional ceremony for the opening of the Holy Door at the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome, the Holy Father struck the sealed door three times with a small silver hammer. Having been walled shut since the conclusion of the previous Holy Year, the masonry was then removed in one go, by means of an elaborate pulley system, before the door frame itself was sprinkled with lustral water. Only then would the pilgrims, led by the Holy Father, pass through the door and into the Basilica Church, often on their knees and kissing the door on the way.
On this fourth Sunday of Easter we hear in the Introit words of Psalm 33: “The loving-kindness of the Lord filleth the whole world, alleluya: by the word of God the heavens were stablished, alleluya, alleluya.” By this opening text of the Mass the Church bids us rejoice today that the Lord has, by the merits of his passion and by his victory over death, rescued us, his people, from the certain death which is the result of our sin. In the light of the paschal season we are reminded today that, as the Easter Sequence proclaims, “Death with life [has] contended: combat strangely ended! Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign.”
The saving action of Christ, by which he leads us from the clutches of death and returns us to fullness of life in him, is the ultimate sign of the loving-kindness or mercy about which we hear in today’s Introit. Our restoration to life in God—the undoing of the serpent’s guile and the sin of the Garden of Eden—is a fruit of the Father’s love for us; a love seen most perfectly in the passion of his only-begotten Son, by whose death we have life. That mercy is at the heart of the message of the gospel. It is the cause of our joy and our hope, and it is the catalyst for our evangelizing mission, to bring all peoples to know and to love Christ in the communion of his holy Church. With Pope Benedict XVI we can say, “mercy is the central nucleus of the gospel message” (Regina cœli, 30 March, 2008).
Over the past two weeks the news has been understandably filled with the events of the third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, a gathering in Rome to discuss the ‘The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization’. With intensive media coverage of what this bishop or that cardinal has said, I think it is fair to say that a great deal of confusion has been the result, often through an attempt to speak of complex theological issues in overly simplistic language. However at the heart of the debate there has been (and continues, to some extent, to be) an unparalleled scrutiny of the Church’s teaching and her pastoral practice.
These two areas of the Church’s life are not entirely new to those of us who have entered the full communion of the Catholic Church by means of the personal ordinariates. Nevertheless, the weight given to both doctrine and law in the Catholic Church, and the absolute definition of Church teaching and pastoral practice, is new. As Catholics we rejoice that we can turn to two particular documents to help us understand these important concepts. First, the Catechism of the Catholic Church which is ‘the authoritative expression of the Catholic faith professed by members of the Ordinariate’ (AC I §5), and secondly the Code of Canon Law which is ‘an indispensable instrument to ensure order both in individual and social life, and also in the Church’s activity itself’ (SDL).
This meditation was my contribution to the 2013 Advent magazine of the Catholic Herald (29 November 2013). It is reproduced here with the permission of the editor.
The Offertory antiphon on the Third Sunday of Advent, Benedixisti Domine, is taken from Psalm 84 (85): “Lord, thou art become gracious unto thy land, thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob. Thou hast forgiven the offence of thy people, and covered all their sins.” The psalm is a profound hymn of the hope of the people of Israel at the end of the Babylonian exile, as they journey to Jerusalem. It also appears in the introit for the beautiful Rorate Mass, a Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary sung before first light on the Saturdays of Advent. The “land” which is the womb of the Blessed Mother, has become the place where man’s captivity – our bondage to sin – is first undone. As St Irenaeus reminds us, by Mary’s obedience, Eve’s disobedience is reversed: Ave is made from Eva!